Equipping the UK with new construction skills to build a sustainable future 

The UK Government has set a firm target to become a net-zero nation by 2050.

Despite recent alterations in the agreement by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, including relaxed targets on fossil fuel boilers and a pushback on the sale of diesel and petrol cars until 2035, the UK still has a legally binding target to cut carbon emissions to Net Zero within the next 30 years.

Current data tells us that 40 per cent of total national emissions come from the built environment, meaning the construction industry has an immense role to play in helping the UK reach this sizable goal.

Rosa Wells, FE Principal and Dean for STEM at University College Birmingham

If this is to become a reality, the first hurdle the industry will need to address is the severe talent shortage that is making it difficult for organisations to recruit the suitable skilled workforce that they need. This is due to multiple factors including an ageing workforce heading into retirement, the continued impacts of Brexit and a lot fewer young people currently considering a career in construction.

So, to properly address the skills agenda and support a sustainable future in construction, it is imperative that major local investment is made across the UK to train and upskill existing workforces as well as create a fresh outlook for the next generation of workers.

New pathways into construction
Creating an appetite for individuals to adopt these new skills will require a clear indication of a sustainable programme of work. New qualifications and training courses will need to be designed to plug the gaps that are prevalent in the market.

This isn’t something that the construction industry will be able to tackle alone and will require collaboration from both national and local governments to see positive results.

It will also be beneficial to see closer ties between educational institutions – at every level – and construction businesses to ensure that new candidates have the skills most needed for the industry but also the awareness of the routes into employment.

Even though the net-zero target feels like a long way away, ‘net-zero compatible’ educational courses should become the standard. Integrated green skills programmes across the country that reflect the government’s environmental ambitions should become much more commonplace in the next five-to-ten years.

On top of this, existing apprenticeship schemes should be re-evaluated so that fresh skills relevant to Net Zero are correctly incorporated.

Retraining to plug the gap
Getting fresh and new skilled workers in place as soon as possible to enable the transition to Net Zero is vital. But as well as creating new talent, employers must look to upskill their current workforce to the changing nature of construction and get them thinking differently about their projects. Net-zero methods need to become a core component of each employee’s professional work and development.

The transition to Net Zero will create a wealth of economic opportunities so ensuring everyone at least has a good level of carbon literacy awareness is vital.

According to the Construction Industry Training Board’s (CITB) Skills for Net Zero Report, it is estimated that half of the current construction workforce will need training or retraining in one form or another. So, this will be no small feat.

It is clear that sizable skills gaps no doubt result in employers facing increased construction costs, due to the simple fact that they have a harder time sourcing skilled labourers. That means the onus falls on both educators and employers to equip workers with the skills they need now, and for the future of construction.

Next steps
Ultimately, education is the key to unlocking the success of the government’s net-zero plans.

The demand for skilled professionals in sustainable construction is only going to get bigger as the 2050 date looms closer so I would encourage the sector to take advantage of the wealth of untapped talent at further education level that has often been underutilised by the sector.

Forward-thinking businesses should continue to be ambitious; expanding their apprenticeships to include opportunities to learn about new methods and investing in their local universities, colleges, and training centres as a way of plugging the skills gap.

A stronger, smarter and more sustainability focused workforce will benefit us all, now and in the future.

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor.
Rosa Wells is the FE Principal and Dean for STEM at University College Birmingham. University College Birmingham is opening a brand-new Sustainable Construction Skills Centre in 2024, which will see students learning the importance of embracing sustainable construction methods, the practicalities of renewable energy and how to cope with the challenges associated with a low carbon world through a blend of theoretical and practical work.